Continuing my reminiscences about growing up white and occasionally encountering “the other,” I’m going to try to move on from discussing individual black people I knew. I want to turn my thoughts toward “blackness” in general or black people in general, as I learned about it/them growing up. Of course my family enjoyed white privilege; of course we didn’t know that, or the name for it. In short, we didn’t worry much about the lives of black people because they rarely intersected with ours. My father was nominally a liberal on race. The word “nigger” was never used in our house; we called them “colored” people or a “colored guy.” Like other white people of my and my father’s generation, we didn’t see “colored” as itself a racialized term. There was also a distinction I picked up from somewhere outside the confines of family: that a “good” black person was a “Negro”; a “nigger” was a bad black person. As if goodness or badness was inherent. All this sort of satisfied me and deflected any guilt I might have assumed.
During the 1965 urban riots, I recall, my dad and I were visiting his sister, my aunt, and her husband, my uncle. My dad and Aunt Dorothy were close; Dorothy lived into, I’m guessing, her 50s as a single woman. She married late in life, and all I knew about it was “Aunt Dorothy is getting married.” I don’t know how she met the man, what kind of courtship they had, nothing. Just, all of a sudden, I had an Uncle Johnny. Looking back, I see that my dad did not approve of him or of his sister marrying him, but he kept it pretty much to himself. But when were visiting them that summer and video of the riots came on the TV news, Uncle Johnny muttered something about “they [rioters, black rioters] should be lined up and shot!” Uncle Johnny was a hunter, something else that was alien in my growing up. My dad surprised me by talking back to Uncle Johnny, scoffing at his notion. I admired my dad for taking this stand, but now I wonder if it didn’t come more from his dislike of Johnny and less from his compassion for poor urban black people.
Generally, my family admired black athletes, particularly Roberto Clemente. Or we didn’t get racial attitudes get in the way of our admiration for them. As a high-schooler, I thought everyone in Pittsburgh admired Roberto Clemente, even if the white folks, anyway, wanted to call him “Bobby” and pronounce his last name with an “e” sound at the end, not an “a.” I went to my share of Pirates games at Forbes Field, and my friends and I liked to sit in the right field grandstand. Those seats were relatively cheap and we could watch Clemente play outfield, which no one in his time could do like him. One day, the opposing batter launches a high drive into right center field. The Pirates’ center fielder was a (white) guy called Bill Virdon. He and Clemente are running toward the ball. One of them caught it; I forget who. But I do remember a (white) fan nearby hollering, “Kill that nigger, Virdon!” Wow. I puzzled over that for a long time: why would some random white man have such hatred for Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ best player? Was it because he thought the white centerfielder should catch the fly ball? That the black, Latino right fielder had no business ranging out of his territory to make the catch? I couldn’t let myself think there were racist whites at a Pirates’ game.
Lest I come across as an anti-racist kid, let me say that, without uttering it, me and my friends thought that black athletes like Roberto Clemente or Willy Stargell were great ballplayers, but still alien as men. I think now that we exercised our white privilege to like what they did but not want them to get too close to us. I think we patronized them. As I moved on to college, I became, somehow, a fan of “black” popular music. When I was home for the summer, I had the local “black” station on the radio all the time. I liked “soul” and I wanted to partake a little bit of it, without, of course, being black myself. I thought I was on the right side of the then-unnamed culture wars. One DJ on the station went by the air name of “Sir Walter.” He had a deep voice and spoke slowly and with an affected intellectual tone. In those days, radio “personalities” often read commercial announcements themselves. One of the sponsors for The Sir Walter Show was Ex-Lax, and Sir Walter talked about it like he believed. He’d say, in his deep voice, “Constipation: the worst misery of which I know,” and he say that one way a person could take Ex-Lax was in the form of “choc-o-lated pills.” He made it a three syllable word, which gave me a chance to laugh at his pretentious intonation, to see through his verbal pose. When I first went to graduate school, I met a woman from Kentucky and wooed her. I presented Pittsburgh as a really funky place, and I’d tell her about The Sir Walter Show and try to do his on-air voice, to make her laugh and think I was attractive. I never once thought that this was a racist attitude. Racist? Who, me? No, man, I’m a liberal! I support Civil Rights! Blah blah blah!